Making a co-operative university

Recent higher education policymaking has been predicated on the need to widen and diversify the sector, via what used to be called Alternative Providers and latterly ‘challenger institutions’. To date, this has primarily seen commercial providers registering with HEFCE and becoming eligible for fee loans. But what if there were a new challenge to the alternative? A project to create a UK co-operative university, organised through the Co-operative College in Manchester and supported by a diverse group of academics, students, professional support staff working in higher education, activists and others, is just one example of the growth of the co-operative higher education movement.

One of the pioneering organisations in this movement is the Social Science Centre (SSC), Lincoln, a co-operative organising no-fee higher education. The Centre was established in 2011, very much in response to financial and policy changes in the sector at that time and to what was felt to be an increasing instrumentalisation of higher education. It does not offer validated higher education degree programmes, but runs teaching, learning and research events at HE level.

The Centre has organised courses on the Social Science Imagination, the History of the Co-operative Movement, Do-It-Ourselves research projects and recently a course on Brexit. It has also hosted lectures by invited speakers and a course on documentary photography, Our Place, Our Priorities.

What is Co-operative Education?

But what is distinctive about the SSC is the way it is run democratically by its members, with each having an equal voice in the governance and management of the Centre as well as the content of the courses and the ways in which they are delivered. Members of the Centre are referred to as ‘scholars’, not teachers and students, to reflect the important sense of equality and democracy that underpins the way in which the governance of the Centre works. This joint production of teaching and research is energised through a commitment to popular education and critical pedagogy – very different to the more rigid models of learning that underpin mainstream providers.

There are twenty members of the SSC, and fifty associate members. The members hold regular events with a class twice a month, and planning meetings once a month on a Saturday morning. The associate members act as external consultants, advisors and critical friends; members can help to fund the work of the Centre by making a financial contribution or by payments in kind.

The Centre has no formal link to any institute of higher education, but has close working relationships with similar projects: the Free University in Brighton, the Ragged University in Edinburgh and Peoples’ Political Economy (PPE) in Oxford. These other organisations are not co-operatives in the strictest sense, but they are based on non-hierarchical decision-making processes – inspired, like the Centre, by teaching practices derived from critical pedagogy and popular education. A Social Science Centre based on the same practices and principles has been set up in Manchester.  

Growing the movement

Many in Higher Education would agree that these ideas and concepts that underpin co-operative education are attractive – even inspirational – but there is a lot of hard organisational work inherent in taking such ideas from ambition to reality. The Social Science Centre in Lincoln has provided a base from which to launch funded research projects, looking at the establishment of a framework for co-operative higher education and co-operative leadership in higher education. Funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation, work to establish this framework builds on a growing body of research into co-operative higher education.

This work represents an intervention in ongoing debates about higher education governance and management, addressing legal, business, pedagogical and international matters. And there are lessons within it for institutions of all types.

The framework describes models for establishing co-operative higher education through:

  • the conversion of an existing higher education institution;
  • the dissolution of a higher education institution by setting up co-operative enterprises, e.g., student housing co-ops and courses on co-operativism, within universities,
  • and the creation of new higher education co-operatives, like the Social Science Centre.

The framework includes a model for a new curriculum by combining the natural and the social sciences, and a set of key principles that can promote and support co-operativism as a driving force for institutional change: Knowledge, Democracy, Bureaucracy, Livelihood and Solidarity. The co-operative model for higher education promoted by this research is neither a private nor a public institution, but a pro-social institution based on ideas around new forms of social value. A paper on this work has been published by the Open Library of Humanities.

The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) has funded research to explore the possibility of co-operative leadership as a model of governance and management in higher education. Field research has been carried out in a number of businesses that already run on a co-operative basis: a co-operative school (of which there are more than 600 in UK), a worker’s co-operative wholefood retailer in Manchester, an employee-owned John Lewis store in a northern English city, and Mondragon University – an established co-operative university in the Basque Country, Spain. A paper on this research was presented at the Co-operative Education and Research conference at Manchester Metropolitan University in April 2017.

One objective is to develop a self-evaluation tool to report and celebrate co-operativism in higher education. This tool can be used as an alternative to the mainstream metrics and measures approach and supports a more qualitative, humanist, critical-practical reflexive approach to evaluating and valuing the work that is done by academics, professional service and support staff. Resources from this research are available on the project blog.

The business of co-operative education

The aim is to establish a business case for a federated co-operative higher education institution in the UK – drawing on possibilities offered by the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA). Researchers at SSC have established strong links with an international group of academics (Universities in the Knowledge Economy (UNIKE)) who have formed a global network to explore the practicalities of setting up a co-operative university. The Co-operative College in Manchester – a prominent example of UK co-operative education – has recently established a working group to co-ordinate and drive this work forward.  

As you may expect, the working group is opposed to the way in which higher education is being commercialised through HERA, but we feel it is important to use the possibilities of this new law to establish a university on a non-commercial basis – an institution for higher learning and research based on other forms of social value. So we are exploring alternative governance models, critical pedagogies, curriculum, fee structures, federated approaches and social purposes. This would be a real alternative to the prevailing models of “alternative providers”

This is much more than an idea or a speculative plan. Academics linked to the working group are setting up a number of examples of co-operative forms of adult learning as well as programmes based on international trade union and labour studies. It is envisaged that these co-operatives will be organised around a federated network of independent co-ops. In the short term these degrees could be validated by a partner higher education institution, with the Co-operative College gaining degree awarding powers in the longer term and acting like a secondary co-ordinating co-operative in a way that is similar to Mondragon University. The working group is due to report to the Co-operative College board in October.

The changing face of higher education

The Social Science Centre had its seventh AGM in July. As in many university meetings, there was frank discussion about the changing face of higher education, and in particular the recently mooted possibility that the student fee will be altered or abolished. But Members agreed that building a co-operative university is about far more than just opposition to fees.

There is a real need to promote a more democratic model for science, pedagogy and radical politics, which could increase the power of people to shape the nature of learning and research in higher education. The SSC is far from being the only group addressing these issues, but we believe we are in a position to make a valuable contribution to the debate about the changing nature of higher education, locally, nationally and internationally.

To consolidate all of this and move the work forward, the Co-operative College will be hosting a conference on the 9th of November in Manchester: Making the Co-operative University: New Places, Spaces and Models for Learning. The aim of the conference is to network with like-minded and interested individuals and organisations and consider the possibilities for a new form of co-operative higher education.

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